A slice of Afghanistan’s history, from someone who actually took part in it, written in poetic prose.
Perhaps poetry is hereditary. Which explains why Masood Khalili’s Whispers of War:, An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion has a distinct poetic undertone to it.
Masood’s father was the Afghan poet laureate, author, diplomat and historian Ustad Khalilullah Khalili, famous for his poems about the Soviet occupation of his homeland. Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, the elder Khalili sought exile first in Germany, then in the US, before returning to Pakistan in the late 1980s. When he passed away in 1987, he was interred in Peshawar next to the tomb of Rahman Baba, a famous Pashto poet. It was only in 2016 that he returned to his homeland, when his remains were moved to the Kabul University mausoleum.
Masood, who was born in Kabul in 1950, apparently not only imbibed his father’s revolutionary spirit, but also his ability to work with words. After completing his BA and MA in political science from Kirorimal College in New Delhi in the early 1970s, he returned to Afghanistan and found a job with Radio Kabul. But following the Soviet invasion, he joined the resistance movement, becoming the political head of the Jamait-e-Islami Party and a close aide to the hero of the Afghan resistance, Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the “Lion of Panjshir”.
After the Soviets withdrew, Khalili served as Afghanistan’s special envoy to Pakistan. But then, following the fall of Kabul to the Pakistan-backed Taliban, he was deported in 1996 due to his links with Ahmad Shah Massoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Khalili then returned to New Delhi as Afghanistan’s ambassador (anti-Taliban), and non-resident ambassador to Sri Lanka and Nepal.
On 9 September 2001, two days before 9/11, Khalili was sitting next to Ahmad Shah Massoud at Khwaja Bahauddin, in northeastern Afghanistan’s Takhar Province, when two Al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists set off a powerful explosive device hidden in their camera. Masoud was killed instantly, Khalili was severely injured. After his painful recovery, and with over 300 pieces of shrapnel still lodged in his body, he was posted as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Turkey, before being named Afghanistan’s first ambassador to Spain.
It was in Madrid that his son Mahmood—who knew about “the box of over 40 war diaries my father wrote to my mother while fighting in the war against the Red Army”, decided to “secretly start translating one of them” with his mother Sohaillah’s help. A month later, Masood found out, and agreed to help out, filling in the gaps where needed. It took eight months for the first draft, and another three years of collaborative editing, with inputs from others involved in that journey, before the book was ready for publishing.
Written as letters to Sohaillah, the book traces about two-and-a-half months—from 1 July to 13 September 1986—of Khalili’s journey from Pakistan across northern Afghanistan, accompanied by crack mujahideen warriors and some foreign journalists. Throughout the incredibly tough journey, Masood would jot a note to his wife whenever and wherever he could, sometimes two or three times a day, sometimes late at night when pain and fatigue did not let him sleep. Sometimes in a tea shop, sometimes in a cave high up in the mountains.
The immediacy of his writing makes for compelling reading. Khalili’s poetic prose—that’s the only way to describe it—takes you on a journey through some of the most hostile terrain and weather, occupied by some of the most hospitable people in the world. As you travel with him, aboard an aircraft from Pakistan, and then on horse, donkey and foot, through verdant valleys and high mountains, through snow, rain, sleet and hail, this sharp contrast keeps recurring through the pages.
“Thinking of going to war, I hate my long journey ahead, but when I think that I am a part of a liberation war, I appreciate it because I had learnt from my father that mercy to the wolf is cruelty to the lamb. Leaving the wolf free deprives the lamb of its freedom. For me, fighting the war for freedom is a way of rejecting the war itself. Tell me: Is there any other way to gain freedom from the clutches of a powerful and cruel enemy but war? I wish there was,” he writes en route to Chitral, the first leg of his journey, aboard a small plane with about 40 people on board.
This includes three wounded Afghans—“a girl with her mother and a boy with his old gray-haired father….The mother, despite having an amputated leg, helps her 12-year-old wounded daughter with medicine and water. The little girl, who has a hand amputated, is trying hard to hide her tears and soften her cries. Perhaps she does not want to show her pain to her wounded mother…On the back seat, a young Pakistani mother gives a piece of candy to her daughter, who is happily playing with her blue-eyed doll. The tears of the wounded girl, and the smiles of the happy one make pain and peace mingle in my own heart.”
“Pain and Peace” could have been another title for the book. Because amidst incredible pain and hardship, within and without, Masood still manages to find peace, patience and kindness. His deft imagery brings to life each flower, mountain, bird and village that he sees. Of course, sometimes, it gets a bit clichéd, like when after an arduous three-hour climb to the top of Papruk Pass, passing hordes of battle-scarred refugees going the other way, he stops to catch his breath. “Sitting on the top, and listening to the silent whispers of nature, my lungs felt wider than the skies, my spirits flew higher than the mountains, and my thoughts were deeper than the valleys.”
But then, there is also this: “There are no shops. Here people have no schools, no hospital, no clinics, no roads, no grocery stores, no postman, no bakery, no barber, no butcher, no electricity, no proper water channels, no transportation, no telephones, and no administration. People also do not expect much.”
Here’s Sabz Dara village, in Badakshan: “After lunch, I went to visit a boys’ school of this village. They were sitting under a big old poplar tree. I tied my donkey to a rusted nail on its giant trunk. The boys were of 10 to 12 years of age. They were excited, but I did not know of what, my donkey or myself. It was again a painful sight to see. Blood fills one’s eyes seeing the poverty of these boys. Their shoes, their shirts, and their overall appearance were very poor. Some of them were barefoot. Their clothes were full of patches. My dear, now listen to what happened while I was in the small and poor class. I proudly told the cute boys, ‘Write azadee or freedom for me.’ Only two boys started writing. I abruptly asked the teacher, ‘Why are only two of the boys able to write?’ While the eyes of the boys were focused on me, in a soft voice, the teacher said, ‘Mr Khalili, they can all write but in the whole class we have just two pencils.’ I was ashamed of my question. My dear, when we gain our freedom, it will not only be with the barrels of guns, firing their thousands of bullets at the enemy, but also with tips of those two pens. I pray that one day millions of kids have schools to attend and endless pencils to write.”
But that prayer is yet to come true. In his epilogue written almost four decades after his trip, Masood says he still has nightmares about “the roar of the jets, the sound of the exploding bombs, the burning of the houses, and the dead bodies of the innocent people killed by the invading Soviet army and its Afghan puppets…. The unfortunate part is that despite so many things happening since then…sadly, the tears of the poor people have never dried, the pain of the innocent fathers and mothers never disappeared, the suffering of the children never ended, and the hearts of the victims never stopped bleeding because the sinister war still continues in different forms and colours.”
This book is a slice of Afghanistan’s history, written by someone who actually took part in it. And despite the despair, we can take heart from what the Lion of Panjshir once told Masood as they prepared for yet another battle against the mighty Soviet army: “In the next few days, we will have sufficient time to talk about war and politics but for now, Khalili Sahib, let us read poetry. That is what relaxes us and fills our heart with joy. Politics never ends, life does. Let us take care of the second first.”